Thursday, June 22, 2006

(Part 4) Talk to Strangers, Learn Something: Day 1

"Go out into the community, talk to strangers, meet new people, learn something, keep a record of your activities, and report back on Friday."

When we received our "mission" this Monday, I listened to my classmates discuss with one another what approaches they would take to complete the assignment, and their perceptions of what the professors' intention was.
Some people in the class were focusing on the quantity of people who they could introduce themselves to. I, on the other hand, was transfixed on the phrase "learn something".

Here is my list of the people I met, and what I learned from each of them:


I met Phillip standing on the deck of the Inner Circle, a night club built inside the hulking old abandoned factory in East Cleveland that used to house the legendary Hough Bakery Company. The building is currently owned by LaMont Williams of "Hot Sauce Williams" fame, who uses just a small portion of it to produce and bottle his sauces, and another part of the space for the night club. Thousands and thousands of square feet remain vacant. Phillip was there with a group of people from REAL NEO to look at the site and investigate the possibilities of starting a small business and technology incubator. We trudged through old offices, climbed up dark staircases and picked our way through cavernous storage areas filled with the debris of defunct businesses.
Phillip is a big man with a kind face, and long red hair, pulled back into a pony tail. He looks to be in his thirties, although I am not always the best at guessing a persons age. I asked him if I could interview him for this assignment, and he was happy to stay and chat for a while.
He began by telling me that he was an Army brat, and when he was just 3 years old, had witnessed the assassination of his father, who was working on a classified data encryption project at General Electric.
At the G.E. company picnic, an unknown man called out his fathers name. When Phillips's dad stepped toward him, the stranger pulled out a gun and shot him. Then he disappeared.
We talked about the effect his fathers death had on the choices he made growing up, his work with computers, and his vision of what a potential tech business incubator would look like at this site. Not surprisingly, he had some very real concerns with crime, safety, and security.


I met Evelyn waiting for my friend Martha on the patio of the Arabica coffee house in University Circle. She had a gentle, waif-like beauty with her pale skin, large eyes, dark hair and tiny frame, that reminded me of the actress Winona Ryder.
We were there to talk about strategies that would increase the public's awareness of the lead hazard, how many people have been poisoned by lead, and how many children continue to get lead poisoned.
The statistics were staggering:
Lead remains a top environmental health hazard for US children. More than one in 25 American children have blood lead levels high enough to lower IQ or cause learning disabilities, violent behavior, attention-deficit disorder or hyperactivity.
Young children are at the highest risk for lead poisoning. Children absorb 40-50 percent of the lead that gets into their mouths. Adults only absorb 10 percent. Even small amounts of lead can produce high concentrations in the blood of young children because their bodies are small. Since children's brains are still developing, the effect of lead poisoning can be especially damaging.
We talked about setting up a table at the Ingenuity Festival in July, and creating a design to put on a button that would create public curiosity about the lead crisis.
Evelyn is an art historian who works at Case Western Reserve University, and is the mother of Claus, a busy, happy, little toddler.


Over the past couple of weeks since the school year ended, I have completed the first draft of a white paper for a new project called The Cleveland Legacy Arts Incubator. In brief summary, it is an urban neighborhood revitalization model, easily replicated, that will teach the legacy arts (ethnic artisan trades, crafts, and cooking) in combination with courses in starting a cottage industry, provide co-op retail space, sponsor master craftsmen from overseas for artist residencies, and create an exhibition gallery for fine artisan tradecrafts.
Monday evening I met with Abby Meir of COSE Art at the Cedar Fairmount Starbucks in Cleveland Heights to review the initiative and discuss possible collaboration and strategic next steps. She called me just as I walked into the shop, to tell me she was running a little late, and had just stepped off the rapid. I took a seat by the front window, and it wasn't long before I could see a little gal with a head full of dark bouncy curls hurrying up the hill. She came in the door with a big smile and an apology. I couldn't help but like her immediately.
We talked for more than an hour, and she gave me some very good pointers, as well as list of names of people who I should connect with.

The fist day of my 48 hour mission to "talk to strangers" came to a close, and as I reflected upon my experiences, I had to smile; each conversation had left me richer.

1 comment:

Norm Roulet said...

Very interesting - I've known Phillip for months and spend lots of time working with him and didn't know what you learned - shows how differently people and their stories are learned and told by different people - or perhaps I'm just dense. Thanks for sharing your insight